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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Heroes of Islam

Imam Malik

Malik ibn Anas Al-assbahi, the founder of the Maliki school of thought, was born in Madinah in 93 A.H, corresponding to 712 A.D. His parents were Arabs of Yemeni descent. His tribe, Assbah, still lives in Yemen. His grandfather, who bore the same name, Malik, arrived in Madinah to complain to the Caliph against the governor, but decided to settle in Madinah, where he met a number of the Prophet's companion, and learnt from those who were known for their scholarly standing, such as Umar ibn Al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, Aisha, Talha and many others. Thus, he became well known as a scholar. He taught the young grandson, Malik, with the best platform to pursue his natural inclination to study.

Malik first sought to memorise the Quran, which he soon did. He then suggested to his family that he should attend scholar's circles to write down the Hadith (sayings/doings of the Prophet Mohammed pbuh) and Fiqh (Islamic law).They welcomed that, particularly his mother, who took extra care of his appearance, helping him to dress in his best attire, and directing him to whom he should study from. She encouraged him to attend the circle of Rabi'ah ibn Abdurrahman who was renowned for excercising scholarly discretion. Malik learnt from him this highly commendable approach, particularly because it was restrained with commitment to hadith and the Quran.

Malik provided a great example of a student eager to improve his knowledge and achieve a standard of excellence in his scholarship. He would go to Nafi', one of his teachers, waiting for him until he came out of his house, he would wait outside in very hot temperatures, having no shade. When Nafi' came out, Malik would follow him, without accosting him at first, until he had walked some distance. He would then greet him and keep quiet. When he approached his destination he would ask him one or two question, learn the answers and memorise them.

Malik was very selective in his choice of teachers. He was keen to study under Az-Zuhri, the first specialised scholar of hadith who had studied under Saeed ibn Al-Mussayib and other celebrated scholars of the Tabi'een generation that succeeded the Prophet's (pbuh - peace be upon him) companions. Malik reports that on one Eid day he thought that Az-Zuhri would be free, so he went to his home and waited at his door. He heard him asking his maid to find out who was at the door. When she told him that it was Malik, he told her to let him in. He asked him:"I see that you have not gone home yet......Would you like to have something to eat?" Malik said:"No. I only would like you to teach me some hadith." Az-Zuhri told him to take out his sheets and dictated to him 40 hadiths. Malik requested more, but the teacher said:"That should be enough for you. If you learn these well, you are a great learner."

Rabi'ah ibn Abdurrahman was one of Malik's teachers, as we have already mentioned. He was nicknamed Rabi'ah Ar-rai, which means 'the-point-of-view'. This is a reference to the fact that he exercised scholarly discretion to a much greater extent than many scholars in Madinah would have liked. In Islamic scholarship there have always been two trends. The first limits all efforts to learning the texts of the Quran and hadith, understanding their meanings and stopping at that. The other trend tries to go deeper into the texts to understand their wider applicability and to reconcile what may appear to be a conflict between the two texts.

Malik's residence in Madinah afforded him the best possible grounding in Islamic scholarship, because Madinah was full of scholars. Moreover, it was the place of residence of the Prophet (pbu) and his companions. It was also frequented by Muslims from all over the world who visited the Prophet's (pbuh) Masjid (Mosque) when they traveled to offer the pilgrimage to Makkah. By Malik's time, there were a number if highly distinguished scholars who either learnt directly from the Prophet's (pbuh) companions or from their successors. Thus, Malik received knowledge that was both authentic and pure.

What is important to realise is that Malik acquired broad knowledge through his teachers. This knowledge was not limited to learning the Quran and the hadith, the rulings passed by the Prophet's (pbuh) companions and their successors. It also involved studying the thinking and the beliefs of the different schools and factions that started and flourished in different areas of the Muslim land at that time.

When Malik was sure of having attained a standard that qualified him to teach, he consulted people of good standing in scholarship and society in Madinah about starting a study circle. He says:"I did not teach until I have obtained an agreement of 70 scholars that I am fit to do so." But even then, he did not sit to teach until he fell into disagreement with his teacher Rabi'ah. Yet he continued to praise Rabi'ah long after his death, stating that "he was a man of much goodness, sound mind, clear virtues, profound understanding of Islam, true love and friendship to all people, particularly to his students. May God bless his soul, forgive him and reward him far better than his good deeds merit." Rabi'ah died When Malik was 43, which suggests that the scholarly disagreement between them occurred when Malik was a well established scholar.

When he started his teaching circle, Malik sat where Umar ibn Al-Khattab used to sit in the Prophet's Masjid, and he lived in the house that belonged to Abdullah ibn Massoud. Thus, he surrounded himself with the atmosphere of the Prophet's (pbuh) companions in his teachings and living quarters.

His circle was of two types: one for hadith and the other for fiqh (Islamic law) and rulings to questions posed. The latter he would do in whatever he was wearing, but when he taught the hadith, he would appear in his best attire, wearing perfume and taking a most serious and devoted attitude. He then divided his days between the two circles. Private questions would be put to him and he would write the answer down for the person concerned. His approach was the same even when the question was raised by the Governor of Madinah. Moreover, he would not give an answer to any hypothetical question. If a problematic question was put to him, he would ask whether it had taken place. If it had not, he would not consider it, even though it might have been probable. Moreover, he exercised extreme caution in answering questions. He would not venture to give an answer unless he was certain of it. Should he feel unsure of his answer, he would not give it. He would tell the questioner that he did not know the answer.

It is reported that someone put to him a question and said:"I have been sent to you with this question from my home-town in Morocco, undertaking o journey of 6 months to reach here." Malik listened to the question and reflected on it before saying to the man:"Tell the person who sent you that I have no knowledge of this matter." The man said:"Who knows it then?" Malik said:"A person who God has given knowledge of it." Another report speaks of another man from Morocco putting a question to him, and he said:"I do not know. We have not been exposed to a problem like this in our home-town. Nor have we heard any of our teachers speaking about it. If you come back tomorrow, I may have something for you." When the man came the following day, Malik told him that he reflected over the matter but he could not arrive at an answer. He did not know it. The man said:"People back home say that there is no one on the face of the Earth who is a better scholar than you." Malik said:"I do not have the competence to answer it." This humility tells us something about Malik in his time, and how he was taught by his teachers.

Malik was distinguished by a superb memory and a clear insight, with both qualities enabling him to achieve eminence amongst his peers.His teacher Az-Zuhri, describes him as a 'great vessel of knowledge', and his student, Al-Shafie, says:"When it is a question of hadith, then Malik would only mention a hadith when he felt that it would be useful to teach others."

Another important quality of Malik was his tireless pursuit of knowledge. He endured a lot of hardship in order to achieve his position of distinction. He is quoted as saying:"No one can achieve what he wants of scholarship until poverty has struck him, but he would endure it nevertheless." With this determination and power of endurance, he was able to stand up to rulers when it was necessary for him to confront them.

Moreover, Malik was sincere in all that he pursued. His pursuit of knowledge had no objective other than seeking God's pleasure. Hence, he approached all questions with the same seriousness, even when they were very simple. He would say:"There is nothing simple in this scholarship. It is all hard, particularly what we will have to account for on the Day of Judgment." It is this sincerity that motivated Malik to refrain from entering any debate or argument with other scholars. When Harun Al-Rasheed, the Caliph suggested that he should have a debate with Abu Yusuf, the second highest ranking Hanafi scholar, Malik refused saying:"This scholarship is not like stirring a fight between animals and roosters." He felt that debates and arguments caused hearts to be hardened and generated animosity between people.

"By God who is the only deity in the universe, I never ordered what was done to you, nor did I know of it. The people of the two sacred cities will remain well as long as you are alive amongst them. I feel that you are the security against suffering. I believe that, through you, God has lifted a great trial which would have befallen them, because they are always ready to cause trouble. By God, I have ordered that he (meaning the Governor) should be brought here in a state of humiliation and imprisonment in harsh conditions. I must inflict on him far more severe punishment than what he inflicted on you." - These were the words of the most powerful man on Earth, Al-Mansoor, the second Abbasi Caliph, apologizing to Imam Malik for the harsh treatment he received from the Governor of Madinah for being true to his convictions.

Malik was subjected to a harsh trial, which involved torture. That was in 164 A.H. Historians give different reasons for this hardship, one of them is that during Al-Mansoor's reign, a rebellion was led by a descendant of Ali, Known as Muhammed An-Nafs Az-Zakiyah, who claimed that the pledge of loyalty to Al-Mansoor was given as a result of coercion. Malik used to mention the hadith in which the Prophet (pbuh) is quoted as saying:""No oath given under coercion is valid." The rebels used this hadith to encourage people to join them, asserting that their pledge of loyalty to Al-Mansoor was not binding. The Governor of Madinah told Malik not to mention this hadith, imparting to him that it was the order of the Caliph. Then the Governor himself sent someone to his circle to ask him about this hadith. Malik, the scholar who valued honesty in scholarship, repeated the hadith as authentic in front of all the people in his circle. His view was that a scholar could not conceal knowledge when asked about it. To do so is sinful.

The result was that the Governor felt that he encouraged the rebels. In consequence, Malik was flogged and his arm was dislocated. The people of Madinah were very angry, feeling that he was treated very harshly. Both the Governor and the Caliph regretted what happened. Hence, on his trip to pilgrimage, Al-Mansoor stopped in Madinah and called Malik to apologize to him.

When he received the Caliph's apology, Imam Malik gave the reply to be expected from one like him: generous, noble and forgiving: "May God bless the Caliph and give him His blessings. I have forgotten him because he is a descendant of the Prophet (pbuh) and because he is a relative of yours."

Needless to say that Malik's reply greatly enhanced his position with the Caliph, who asked him to write to him whatever he wished, to remove injustice or to promote people's interests. Also his position among the people was highly enhanced. He continued to enjoy people's love and respect until his death in 179 A.H. His scholarship continues to inspire scholars all over the world.

If the whole episode speaks of Malik's courage, willingness to state the truth as he knew it, regardless of who may be offended, it also speaks of his sincerity and the value he attached to the position of a scholar in the Muslim community. Malik's sincerity aimed at arriving at the truth, regardless of who takes the credit for it. He would not give a ruling on any matter that had anything to do with judges and their verdicts. He would not criticise any verdict. Malik was sincere in avoiding anything that could cause trouble. He, however, would speak privately to judges, showing them any point of evidence that they might have overlooked.

In his appearance, Malik was awe-inspiring. Many reports agree that Malik had a spiritual influence on people that made everyone look at him with great respect, love and awe. Furthermore, he was also a man of great insight, not only in knowledge and scholarship, but in people's characters and qualities. Al-Shafie was still a young man when he went to Madinah. He reports:"When I arrived in Madinah and met Malik, he listened to me and then looked at me for a while. He was a man of insight. He then asked me my name and said, 'Muahmmed, maintain fear of Allah and avoid sin. You are certain to have a position of distinction'.

Malik lived in poverty for a long time during his pursuit of knowledge. His main income was from a business with small capital. When he was recognised as a scholar whose views were sought by rulers and Caliphs, he was in a much better situation.


Malik was an outstanding scholar of hadith. His book, known by the name 'Al-Muwatta', was the first written collection of hadith. He worked on it for a long time after Al-mansoor requested him to compile it. He finished it during the reign of Al-Mansoor's son, Al-Mahdi. In fact, Al-Rasheed, who ruled late, wanted to endorse it as the law of the state and to place a copy of it in the Ka'bah, but Malik refused, arguing that Islam was much more broader than that. To restrict people to such a book is to overburden them.

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